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Interns: Not Just for Coffee Anymore

The days of interns being office gophers are a thing of the past. Employers need to be aware of the rules for interns.

Need someone to do your filing, sort your mail, fetch your coffee and other grunt work? An unpaid intern is not the answer.

Many may remember summer intern experiences where they had hoped to learn about business and a particular industry but instead spent their time being the office errand boy or girl. Woe to the company that tries that now. New federal guidelines for internships were released in 2010 in response to the uptick in the number of unpaid internships over the last few years. The concern was that some employers were bringing in unpaid labor to help them through tough economic times.   

One of the issues is having unpaid interns perform tasks that displace paid workers. For example, if an intern performs work that the firm would have had to hire additional employees or required current employees to work overtime, the intern will be viewed as an employee and must be paid accordingly.

Far from being a financial benefit to a company, unpaid interns must almost be a detriment. The intern must receive a benefit from the experience. An internship must provide training to the individual much as an educational setting would. Not only does the employer not receive a worker but one or more of the employees will be taking time away from their work to devote to the intern.

Many companies have cut down or cut out internships because they simply do not have enough resources to devote. This is unfortunate because students are losing out on opportunities to experience the workplace and companies are missing out on training students who may turn out to be future hires.         

Students can earn credits for their unpaid internship. Herein lies a dilemma for students; do you take the unpaid internship and earn the credits or find a paying job for the summer? I had a student in my HR class this past semester who came up with a win/win. She needed 100 hours to receive credit but the internship is for 12 weeks. She decided to ask the employer if she could do the first 3 weeks as an unpaid internship, receive training etc., and work for the remaining 9 weeks. They said yes. I’d like to tell you it was my idea but it was all her. Good job, Rebecca!

If you are not sure if a program or particular position falls under the “intern” category, the Department of Labor provides a fact sheet. I need to run now—I have to get my own coffee.

Heron May 13, 2012 at 11:13 PM
I'm glad you wrote this column. I have been hoping for a few years now that someone will crack down on unpaid internships. I have worked for many years for a well-known company that completely exploits UNPAID interns, and justifies what they do by saying that the intern can "put down on their resume that they worked here." I have seen unpaid interns given jobs that no one would want to do. It's awful.
change can be good May 13, 2012 at 11:54 PM
does this include the high school seniors who intern for the graduation credit? If so since it is a school program shouldn't the school make sure the children aren't being taken advantage of? My daughter is only required to intern 24 hours per week but where she is interning at they want and expect her to work 40 hours per week, I said no.
NorthCountyHound May 14, 2012 at 01:55 PM
On Wall St, we always hired female interns. Their only job was to wait around till the market closed so we could take them drinking and sleep with them. I thought that is what they were there for.
Heron May 14, 2012 at 02:29 PM
Does your high school require that students intern for graduation credit? In a business????? Sorry, but that seems weird. Sleepy Hollow has a requirement that students do community service, but that's different.
Donna May 14, 2012 at 03:40 PM
I would say that half of the unpaid internships are probably illegal.
Heron May 14, 2012 at 04:12 PM
My guess is 75-80% are illegal, but it's difficult to prosecute, because so few interns want to file a lawsuit.
Just a Boy May 17, 2012 at 08:27 PM
You my dear author, are an idiot. The term is gofer, not gopher, the opinion peices by the high school authors are better than this. You claim to have so much expertise but im sure once anyone realizes how moronic you are, they will either sever ties with your company and you, or just never form them to begin with.

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